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Seattle Suit Claims a Police Dog's Bite Is Worse Than Its Bark

The Seattle police department is fending off an unusual case of police "brutality."

The practice of training police dogs to bite suspects as a way of apprehending them has sparked a class-action lawsuit. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed the lawsuit, says that a dog's bite is an act of excessive force.

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"When canines are trained and conditioned to attack people, they become weapons," ACLU attorney Jack Alkire said at the start of the trial that began this month.

Police officials say a police dog's first duty is to protect officers from suspected criminals, a job the dog can't do if it can't bite.

"Police officers who are killed in the line of duty are almost always [killed] by people wanted for a minor crime," says Ted Buck, the attorney for the police.

The lawsuit is the latest court clash in a nationwide debate over the training of police dogs that has split the law-enforcement community and police-dog trainers themselves. The debate is about two methods, often termed "find and bite" and "find and bark."

In "find and bite," the dog tracks down a suspect and bites him until its handler commands it to let go. In "find and bark," the dog finds a suspect and then barks at him. It bites only at the command of its handler or if the suspect moves.

The difference has grown in importance as more law-enforcement agencies have rushed to add canine units to sniff out narcotics and explosives, as well as track down suspects. The North American Police Work Dog Association says its police and trainer membership has almost doubled to nearly 2,000 in the last six years.

But all the good that dogs can do is undermined by injury-producing bites, which inevitably resurrect images of the savage attacks of military-trained dogs on civil rights and antiwar marchers in the 1960s.

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In fact, those were vicious attack dogs, hostile even to their own handlers, says Ken Burger, a trainer and former dog handler for the Chicago Police Department. In the 1970s, police agencies quietly replaced them with better-trained dogs.

"Find and bite" training, however, continues to be the subject of costly lawsuits and a heated topic for police-dog trainers.

Retired police officer Richard O. Rogers, editor of the Canine Courier, says the find and bark method is inferior, because it asks the dog to decide when to bite the suspect.

"But we teach the handler when he should deploy and not deploy the dog," says Mr. Rogers, who trains dogs in the find-and-bite method in Angier, N.C.. "We're not going to ask the dog to make any judgments."

Burger, who favors find-and-bark, responds: "In any case the dog makes the decision. The dog turns the corner five feet before the handler does and confronts the subject first. Most frequently, the dog is out of the sight of the handler."

If there is no consensus among dog trainers on the best methods, it may be due to a lack of national standards or oversight in the training or performance of canine units. No single national group or agency monitors the use of police dogs in law enforcement, and in the place of clear standards there is a patchwork of legal decisions.

In the most recent major case, the Los Angeles Police Department last year reached a $3.7 million out-of-court settlement with the ACLU and other groups and switched from "find and bite" to "find and bark" training.

That's what the ACLU lawyers would like to see happen here. Their lawsuit, filed in 1992 on behalf of six plaintiffs, also seeks damages for victims of dog attacks.

Seattle police dogs bit at least 450 people from 1989 to 1992, the ACLU charges, many of them African-Americans and juveniles.

A Police Department spokeswoman rejected the ACLU's statistics and position. Chief Norm Stamper says the true picture of their policies will emerge during the trial, which is expected to continue for another two weeks.

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